Tuesday, February 2, 2010

review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

The Unnamed
by Joshua Ferris
Reagan Arthur Books, 2010

If you hear someone describe this book as "about a lawyer," they're lying. This book is no more about a lawyer than McDonald's is about floor tiles. Both entities contain their descriptors, but each is about something completely different. Instead this is a book about impulses, uncontrollable impulses. It's a book of family and commitment and being. It's a book of relationships and marriage and that "I do" phrase. This book is not about a lawyer.

It's also a book about illness, and mental illness. I once read an essay something or another about how recent literature has taken a discernible bent towards dealing with medication and the effects of pharma (someone send me the link...I think it was at n + 1, but I couldn't find it...).

Tim Farnsworth is subjected to bouts of uncontrollable walking. Not pacing, but walking, the kind where he strips halfway down and just goes and goes with no control. Due to this ailment, he is strapped to his bed, he misses work, he leaves places with no announcement or goodbye. He tries and hides this from his workplace, saying that his wife has cancer, but it affects his career, destroys his career.

No one has this certain walking disease, the New England Journal of Medicine can't figure it out, all the specialists this side of the Mayo and Cleveland clinics can't figure it out. Tim is alone in his disease.

But he is not alone in his life. His wife picks him from far off distances, his daughter Becka becomes a babysitter for her father. He misses large chunks of their life from work, and then eventually misses large chunks of their lives due to his walking.

Eventually, Tim ventures on his own, alone to handle the disease. Ferris rightly details the frantic nature of Tim's walking and the scant details he is able to retain, finding himself in public parks and baseball fields, this is where the genius of Ferris is really evident. It's the third section, second chapter and it is descriptive, it is fast, it is perfectly applicable to Tim's situation, it is some of the best writing I've seen in awhile. An excellent combination of anyplace-highway land and the menacing rambling thoughts of Tim that mixes his lawyer-ese with bouts of soul-bashing, it is a stumble into madness, physical breakdown and loneliness.

Ferris, like in his previous novel, is deft at changing pace and perspective. We see Tim, then his wife Jane, their stories told separately in some sections, but intermingling where appropriate. The third-person narrator that Ferris invokes is sometimes unreliable to great effect, such as Tim meeting an old friend in a restaurant, and I'll leave it at that.

Tim is obstinate, but also afflicted. His disease causes pain on others, he eventually learns how to handle it, with a potent pharma-cocktail. Then, in many ways, it's too late.

There are some disappointments here. Tim's disease described is vague and unknown, but it's almost too much so. Tim walks a lot, why can't he stop and talk to someone? Why does he end up in random places, why doesn't he just turn back around? Why doesn't a treadmill work very well? Why can't he walk laps or in a specific area? Simple questions like those are never fully addressed, the reader is just expected to be in agreement, the suspension of belief almost too great to get at Ferris' main point---the bounds of marriage.

There are some mixed reviews, but most of those come from too many comparisons to the "other" work, a clever conceit with a lot of funny moments. This is not more of the same, there is really nothing funny or humorous at all.

But this is a book that Save(s) Ferris from just being a gimmick. It would have been easy for Ferris to take the Max Barry route, writing clever corporation satire one after another in a time and place where that is vogue. This firmly puts Ferris on the other side of the fence, into that "serious" writer side. I would be surprised if some consider this book better than Then We Came...but that doesn't matter. Because Ferris puts his career in a steady upward trajectory with this one, it builds and diversifies at the same time. If people doubted Ferris before, The Unnamed shows Ferris to be no joke.


  1. I like the spin you put on this review much better than what others have said of Ferris because you're giving him the benefit of the doubt on trying to grow and develop--always commendable. Also, my copy of I'm Not Sydney Poitier arrived yesterday, and I'm stoked to read it.

  2. ha ha sweet. that's a good book, it'll make you want to catch up on all the sidney poitier movies just to know what's going on.


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